Immersive experiences are often rich and complex, drawing upon personal stories, playing with expectations and engaging with emotions through the manipulation of the senses from groups of people to individuals. They are often described as transformational, intense, sometimes hectic and often provoking.
Being a part of an audience, whether in a group or alone, can result in a range of changes in psychological state from being scared to excited, happy to sad, fascinated to confused. Immersive experiences have also been proven to have longer term effects on our state of mind and thoughts, from changing attitudes and priorities, daily habits and behaviour, as well as core principles.
What we see tells us a lot about the world around us, but what our body experiences really defines how we perceive the world.
A fully body, full sense encounter can change the way we see and experience the space around us
Designed by Imagineerium
Table of Contents
What is Immersion?
First things first, what is immersion?
Immersion means ‘being completely involved in something.’ It can also be translated to ‘engagement,’ a mixture of how much you are paying attention and how much it is affecting you emotionally, really honing in on your investment in something.
Immersion can often have both positive and negative consequences, one can feel overwhelmed, submerged and stretched or deeply absorbed, engaged and be transported on a life changing journey.
Immersive experiences are an amalgamation of technologies and moments that interact with and transfer audiences to a space where they feel safe to explore their emotions, their connections and question their beliefs.
Being immersed can sometimes be described as moving from one reality to another (source)
How can you be Immersed?
You can be immersed in many ways through physical domains and interactive technology, whether it be VR, projections or just tangible opportunities. You can also be immersed in audio and just simply the present moment, which can all have a deeply powerful impact on the human experience.
With AR/VR technologies there can be a natural intensity that radiates and these emotive digital reality experiences can spark a visceral response deep inside of us. Through immersion a range of emotions can be experienced – emotions that are influenced by how your brain and senses respond to them. Immersion has been proven to bring fulfilment and growth to individuals with an increase in learning and deepening of their perspectives and ideas. An immersive experience can provide the opportunity to explore someone/thing else’s personal, and often mysterious, inner world through the transportation to an altered state of consciousness. From video games to digital reality, we’re seeing even more unique ways that these types of experiences are having a positive influence on the brain (1).
Photo from Cad Schroer
The Effects of being Immersed
Validation and Recognition
An Immersive experience takes a customer into an augmented universe where imagination comes to life. It is a beautiful way to interact in person and people often find the experience profound, conjuring up emotions and memories they didn’t think would surface. Doing this alone is one thing, but when surrounded by a cluster of people who are also expressing similar emotions and behaviours, individuals can feel a sense of inclusion and acceptance that they may not necessarily get from everyday life.
This validation cultivates a whole new set of emotions and feelings and takes their experience to a whole new level of connection, possibly remaining as a poignant memory for the rest of their lives. This provides space for communities to develop and grow, sustaining the experience for longer than just the moment of the tangible event itself.
As mentioned, from validation and recognition, communities can develop through immersive experiences building support networks for people who find that certain connection.
From research we know that having a social support system can have a positive impact on your overall mental health. It allows people to find hope, empowerment and agency, helping people manage everyday challenges, make difficult decisions, or even combat a crisis situation. According to the UK charity, Mind, ‘1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind in England each year, with 1 in 6 people reporting that they experience a common mental health problem (like anxiety and depression) in any given week in England.’(2) Having a support network has been proven to greatly help those in need with mental health issues and immersive experiences could be at the forefront of helping these communities build and individuals gravitate towards other human beings who have similar ideologies.
During immersive experiences people feel they share some part of their identity with another human being and therefore feel a sense of safety and security. Deep down, our ability to connect and understand someone else fundamentally depends on whether or not we feel safe to do so.
Connections deepen in immersive spaces as people begin to encourage and share (source)
Immersive experiences are moments of planned impact and often when people are asked about what they enjoyed about the event words such as excitement, atmosphere and energy are used. People also report moving through a series of emotions from daunted to amazed, overwhelmed to reconnected, fear to ecstasy, and excited to helpless.
It is clear that emotions play a very important role in an immersive experience, and it is this experience of strong emotions that makes it very personal, often motivating an individual to engage with challenging situations. This management of strong emotions is what leaves such an impact and makes the experience so valuable and memorable for attendees.
Immersive experience can cultivate many emotions in people from fear to happiness, excitement, shame and unhappiness, and these encounters can sometimes feel very strong, compelling the participants to change or re-evaluate as they seek a positive emotion.
Generally, participants who become more expert in handling their emotions as a result of an immersive experience often develop the capability to cope with and manage strong emotions in the future, therefore opening a pathway towards more emotional availability and empathy.
Creating a powerful emotional response resonates in the subconscious level of the mind (source)
Immersive experiences, or more specifically, immersive theatre experiences create a sense of journey as they carry participants through a beginning, middle and end, following themes and sub-themes that play on the different emotions mentioned before, but this journey often underpins transformation.
Immersion can allow space for personal transformation, creativity and innovation, providing people with a new sense of responsibility that motivates change and growth to a higher level and possibly higher satisfaction. It has been reported that higher levels of life satisfaction is associated with better mental and physical health(3). An improved psychological state that includes mood stability, optimism and a clear sense of purpose helps people live a fuller, longer life with it directly correlating to a better physical state and more positive sleeping habits.
So what happens in the brain when we take part in an immersive experience?
Human psychology and Immersive Experiences
There has not been a great deal of research done on human psychology when exercised in an immersive experience, but some scientists and psychologists are beginning to look into it more as VR grows from strength to strength and immersion is starting to be used in learning experiences, as well as for pain management in patients. What we do know is that immersive experiences ignite imagination, engage with emotions and have the potential to transform, functions that are all characterised as cognition in the realms of psychology.
Cognition is described as 'the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses’ and therefore ‘cognitive psychology is about how your brain works and how all of your senses interact to give you your perception of what the world is.’ Immersive experiences allow people to step into an augmented universe where imagination comes to life and this all takes place it what is coined as the human brain’s “mental workspace,” a widespread neural network that coordinates activity across several regions in the brain (4).
The neuroanatomy of the human brain from Cambridge Cognition
Cognition is not a whole entity, there are various distinct cognitive functions that have been shown to be dependent upon diverse neuronal circuitry. For example, social cognition requires emotion recognition and emotional bias to be able to respond to emotion-loaded stimuli, whereas, executive function relies on mental flexibility, planning, work memory and response inhibition to perform it’s role of high level thinking and decision making.
Cognition, as a whole, is important as it helps us understand information about the world around us and interact safely with our environment. As the sensory information we receive is vast and complicated, especially in immersive experiences, cognition is needed to filter all of the information overload down to its essentials through these different neurological pathways.
Exercising these movements in the brain, just like exercising our bodies, is essential to keeping it healthy, stronger and more flexible for longer and being immersed is the perfect way to do this.
“Brain training” has been around for some time for simple puzzles, but can immersive experiences also be classed as great way to train the brain (source)
Immersive experiences take attendees out of their comfort zone and are a platform for audiences to be present and more open to learning, more giving in nature. When looking at it from a science and art point of view it is obvious to see the power of both and how they bring us closer together. Immersive art and technology can teach us so much about the complexity, diversity and wonderful weirdness of being human – whether in moments of transcendence or in the darker moments. The reality is that people often need a hook: something that gives them this feeling of safety as they venture into another’s world. This is exactly what art and entertainment can do.
Immersive experiences have the potential to contribute to faster learning, inform audiences of the importance of their individual impact and have very positive effects on mental and physical health through the cultivation of communities and exercising of the brain.
Though the research is limited there is no doubt that immersive experiences can have a truly wonderful impact on human psychology… Imagine that!